The Power of Policy

Imagine if the drawbridge had been invented before the static bridge. At some point there would have been a realisation that the same structure could be deployed to far greater benefit based on its ability to facilitate progress than could be derived from it being limited to the single function of restricting access on demand.

David Sharpley, Amdocs

David Sharpley, Amdocs

It’s a backward-thinking scenario but these are the lines along which policy is evolving in the mobile network. Originally employed as a means of controlling subscribers’ network consumption—a fundamentally defensive tool—policy is now being used by mobile operators to facilitate service access to the benefit of both the user and the operator.

The cutting edge models in data pricing—shared usage packages, day passes, turbo boosts and dynamic Quality of Service (QoS)—are all dependent on policy to function properly, says David Sharpley, Vice President and gGeneral Manager of the Data Experience Business Unit at Amdocs. “Policy is now the cornerstone of data plan innovation,” says Sharpley. “Rather than a cost manager it’s become a revenue and marketing machine that drives service revenue and differentiation.”

Sharpley cites the example of one Amdocs customer that sought to leverage quiet time in the network with the introduction of a “happy hour”. Originally the move was designed to ease congestion, with customers told that any data consumed within the specified hour would not count against their quotas. Over time it became sufficiently popular that the operator began charging a small fee—€1/month—for continued access to the happy hour. “Something that started out as traffic management has now transitioned into a revenue generator,” says Sharpley, “and this is just one example of many that our customers are now implementing with great success in their networks.”

Operators’ strategies to meet the booming demand for mobile broadband services will keep policy at the heart of operations. It is central to the functioning of LTE networks, Sharpley says. In LTE it is policy that enables operators to deploy a dual bearer strategy; a default bearer for basic service levels and a dedicated bearer for applications—VoLTE or high definition video, for example—that require superior QoS.

“I think most operators are getting on the page with this, particularly as they launch LTE, where everything is a data service and QoS becomes critical,” Sharpley says. “They’re starting to understand the strategic role that policy plays, not only in their network but also in their business.”

And its influence is not limited to the cellular network. Policy will increasingly be employed to extend cellular network controls into the carrier wifi environment as operators’ reliance on wifi offload grows in line with user demand. In a recent survey of network operators commissioned by Amdocs, Analysys Mason found that service differentiation was the main driver for wifi deployment, more important even than data offload.

In a whitepaper based on the findings, Analysys Mason wrote: “Operators that move to Service Provider Wi-Fi will have to implement carrier-grade policy control, security and management systems in order to offer secure, differentiated services. Today, operators are split fairly evenly between two camps – 41% already offer, or plan to offer, differentiated QoS over Wi-Fi while 45% have no plans to do so.”

The shift in perception that is resulting in wifi being seen as a service differentiation tool and not simply a tool for easing network burden shows how policy is moving out of the networks’ unit within operators and into core business functions. The nature of the conversation is changing.

“This is why we’re starting to engage with the marketing and product management teams within service providers,” says Sharpley. “We’re educating them on the plethora of use cases that they could potentially unleash on the market. We still deal with the network teamsbecause they have to manage the policy functions but our constituency now includes the CMO and the CIO because they’re the ones who are really trying to drive innovation around data service plans.”

As always different operators have made different levels of progress. Some operators have introduced only a handful of new use cases based on what some within the industry are calling Policy 2.0, while others have as many as 50. Progress depends very much on how quickly operators are investing to upgrade legacy systems.

One reason for the variety of approaches is that, as usual, operators are reluctant to relinquish assets in which they have already invested. Some first generation policy infrastructure can be used to maintain the basic network management functions for which it was originally intended. In other instances operators are looking to rip and replace; particularly with a view to deploying pre-integrated policy and charging solutions.

“There are a few key drivers for service providers’ replacing legacy policy systems,” Sharpley says. “First they need improved flexibility, second they need to manage the cost and time to market of new services, and third they realize that policy is relevant to every data session that the subscriber is using. Subscribers will have multiple data sessions running on their devices so the performance and scalability of the system itself becomes a critical driver for upgrade.

“The other reason is the requirement for integration into the charging system. A combination of policy and charging from a single vendor adds value by definition. One of the things that we’ve done is put a common product catalog over both our policy and charging platforms, giving operators a single point of configuration.”

3GPP has standardized the Sy interface between policy and charging infrastructure and operators will be keen to embrace that standard because it will reduce cost and because it reflects the needs they have communicated to 3GPP, Sharpley says. For vendors, compliance with the standard will be essential he says.

Time to market seems to be increasingly important to operators looking to use data plans to either differentiate their offering or mimic others’ innovation. “One of the benefits we’ve provided is a very flexible, intuitive tool to allow service providers to create, test and rapidly deploy different policy use cases,” Sharpley says. “That can be done in a span of weeks. It could be days but typically service providers want to run it through their labs to make sure they’re not affecting any other part of the service or network. But if we’re talking a matter of weeks from end to end, that’s pretty agile from a service provider’s perspective.”

Of course operators need to have their own vision of the kind of use cases that advanced policy solutions can enable before they can take advantage of quick time to market. Sharpley says that offering a “cookbook” of preconfigured use cases helps operators get the process underway before they embark on in-house developments.

One other area in which policy is essential is roaming. It has been central to the implementation of EU roaming regulations, for example, controlling the notifications and redirects for customers using data services overseas. In the roaming environment policy now needs to be taken to the next level as it is in domestic scenarios, Sharpley says. “Service providers need to  work out how to monetize the subscriber’s experience while roaming after they’ve hit their threshold; that will be the next wave,” he says.

In the most simplistic terms the evolution of policy is about moving from a negative subscriber experience to a positive one. Having a service terminated or restricted, however legitimate a response it may be contractually, never feels good to the end user—and that is how policy has been most frequently used. But it is now being recast as a proactive and non-invasive, revenue generator.

“It may actually be completely invisible to the subscriber,” Sharpley says. “If they’ve gone into a venue their service might automatically be moved onto the Wi-Fi network. Or if a certain area of the network is congested, a premium subscriber will have their QoS increased without them knowing. There are a lot of ways in which policy can play a role in helping decide, in real time, the nature of the subscriber experience.  This is the power of policy today.”

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